‘Nothing is what it seems…’
Director: Nicholas Roeg
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie
Plot: Grieving couple John and Laura travel to Venice after the death of their daughter. But soon vulnerable Laura is drawn in by a pair of psychics who say they can commune with spirits on the other side, while sceptic John thinks he sees his dead daughter, all against the backdrop of a city terrified by a spate of vicious murders.
The opening seven minutes of DON’T LOOK NOW (1973) surely must go down as some of the most traumatising in cinematic history. It works on a gut-wrenching emotional level as the Baxter family’s typical Sunday afternoon (the kids playing, mum reading, dad examining slides of a church he’s going to help renovate) is shattered into chaos as their daughter, Christine, drowns in a pond. Clearly this an ordeal on any level but the inspired use of cross-cutting as we move between John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura’s (Julie Christie) mundane activities and their daughter’s inescapable progress towards her death creates a mood of inevitability and fatalism: he throws his wife a pack of cigarettes and Christine lobs a ball into the pond, he spills a drink and his daughter’s face is disappearing beneath the surface of the water. And most ominously a red hooded figure in the pew of the church John’s been studying blossoms into a bloody stain, just like Christine’s bright red mackintosh. But throughout DON’T LOOK NOW we’re shown time and time again that nothing is pure coincidence, and John, sensing something’s terribly wrong, dashes outside. But it’s too late to save Christine. Instead Roeg shows John grotesquely rearing from the pond clutching his dead daughter to his chest three times, in slow motion and from different angles. It’s a technique Roeg used before in WALKABOUT (1971), and as John howls his grief we’re horrified and shaken by this primal outpouring of utter, irreversible loss.
Part of what makes DON’T LOOK NOW so potent is its extended use of symbol and visual metaphor. In fact, the opening sequence neatly encapsulates the rest of the story as a collection of reoccurring symbols are set up, such as water and the colour red. It serves to dislocate with its intricate cross-cutting, so that we’re lost in the time frame; we later learn that the opening shot of water was in fact from much later on when the grieving couple are in Venice. This technique is later used to similar disordering effect in the infamous extended sex scene between the couple. In one shot we’re seeing naked flesh, in the next John’s re-buttoning his shirt or Laura’s sorting out her make-up before heading out for the evening. It’s hard to tell when the actual “now” of the film is.
Both John and Laura are looking for their daughter in different ways; Laura chooses to rely on psychics and spiritualism but never experiences anything paranormal, while John rubbishes it all, reminding his wife that Christine’s dead – yet he keeps seeing a figure in a red mac (like she was wearing when she drowned) running through the streets. It’s only when he gives himself into it all and follows the red figure that it becomes clear that he’s only been pursuing his own death all along – literally. Because nothing’s what it seems and that small red figure isn’t a frightened child, or a lost ghost. No, not at all…
Horror Highlights: The pay-off in DON’T LOOK NOW is twisted, tragic and funny all at the same time. After finally cornering the red-hooded figure John goes to comfort her and I really do think we’re expecting the ghost of Christine. But she spins round and she’s…an old female dwarf. With a knife. The Venetian murderer is revealed as the malevolent midget bloodily hacks her next victim to death. Suddenly we realise that red blob on the photo slide back in England was probably this dwarf woman all along, sat in the church John would eventually renovate. She’s the monstrous counter-part to his dead daughter, born of grief and loss. Perhaps she’s been waiting for him all this time. It’s utterly creepy and completely absurd all at once.
Terrifying Trauma: The spine-tingling realisation that when John thought he saw his wife being abducted by the two psychics, it was no such thing; instead he saw a premonition of his own funeral. Roeg’s narrative mosaic finally snaps together with an uncanny jolt.
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